As Chester Alburn drunkenly belts out his best Hank Williams, Darren Druce slides his left hand up Marcie Dembrowski’s thigh—- Chester’s woman, or so Chester thinks. It’s karaoke night at the Havelock Hotel and Henry Stinson came down from Warsaw by snow-machine. Thirty kilometers or so, just to get juiced.
--"Smooth with the Ladies"
Matthew Firth writes in stripped language, preferring apt detail to adjective. His world consists of people permanently down on their luck, working stiffs, mean drunks, bar girls. People like Phelps of "One Night in Oktober," man who might experience a Joycean epiphany if he really tried. In Firth’s tale, the best Phelps can manage is worry over the consequences of a one-night stand. People drink too much in his stories. They turn violent. Sex happens casually but with little pleasure. We leave most of his characters frustrated and lost. Suburban Pornography pushes sex front and centre, but erotica it ain’t.
Suburban Pornography and Other Stories
Author: Matthew Firth
Firth’s writing echoes Hugh Selby, Jr. and William T. Farrell and others interested in lowlife losers. Recall of Ernest Hemingway, clipped sentences. Certain late nineteenth, early twentieth-century urban writers, too, if they'd been inclined and permitted to write "fuck" in every other sentence.
He prefers his words strong and unpleasant. He also tends to repeat himself. A boy's penis mashes against mattress as he fantasizes about girls he knows. Drunken dancers mash together. In two of the stories a woman is characterized by the thong riding up a "plump ass."
The best stories make memorable and deceptively easy reading. "August, 1974" evokes the world of its characters through common objects and the thoughts they call forth:
I look down from the railway bridge. Oily tracks. Tries leech creosote. Paper Dominion grocery bags wet and frayed, coming apart. Pitched bottles smashed. Rusty nails, broken glass. Overturned grocery store cart. Delapidated beer cases.
A guy lies back drinking. Looks up at me. Right at the instant I spot him. Not that old, really-- probably forty. But to me he looks ancient, an old man. Dirty hair. Grubby clothes. Creased, brown skin. Yellow eyes. And pissed off. he looks absolutely pissed off at everything, including me-- especially me.... Like, if he could, he'd reach up from under the bridge, grab my skinny ankles, pull me off my bike and drag me down into his stink-- teach me a lesson, keep me there till I sunk too. he holds my gaze till I look away(21).
Later in the story, George, abuse victim, plays with matches. He wants "to set a train on fire. George dreams of burning trains. Trains that jump the tracks, fly through the air, plough into his house, destroy it in a blazing fireball-- his entire family incinerated in seconds." (23)
It’s the best of the lot. I believed in its characters, in George's rage and the main character's dim awareness of the world around him.
The title story comments on our commodification of everything, especially sex. A man watches the game on his neighbour's big-screen tv, and then later observes their sex life through picture windows. He condemns their lifestyle while masturbating to it.
"Job Action" also works well. Garbage men on the eve of a strike get hammered on the job. I cannot admire these men, but I understand them. Firth lets us glimpse perspectives we might otherwise ignore.
The dialogue, strong in some stories, in others leaves me cold. The boys of "Sheila Crawford Sucks Cocks" sound a little too sophisticated, given their age and naiveté. I’ll reserve judgment on some of the idiots who populate "Smooth with the Ladies." It’s difficult to know if they represent more of Firth’s filthy realism or parodies of small town barflies. Firth gives us grit, but the people stirring in it vary in their accessibility.
Individually, most stories work. Collectively, they're overkill. The obsessions with voyeurism and masturbation weary without satisfying. We witness multiple acts of actual masturbation, and some of the stories play like masturbatory fantasies tumbling into a realistic world. I bought the boys’ peeping in "Sheila Crawford Sucks Cocks;" I had some difficulty with a thirteen-year-old Sheila indifferent to the story's headline-like title being blazoned on her family garage, indifferent to the knowledge that boys her age watched. A housewife exposes herself in "On a Quiet Residential Street," nightly, hoping a man will see her and make advances. A bus driver has sex with an anonymous woman in his bus on a public street. The protagonist of "A Serious Deterrent" has an odd encounter with a coworker that could happen in real life, but probably wouldn’t, and has no appreciable connection to the rest of a this powerful story. Yeah, it shows the guy’s frustrated. We knew that.
The macho posturing and sexual violence may be read as critique. His men seem empty. In "Begotten, Not Made," a past relationship haunts the protagonist. He casts his pain in religious terms, but one suspects feelings of redemption will not last long. Still, female characters receive short shrift in these tales. Firth's world, literally phallocentric, will not appeal to all. Those seeking a Canadian male tour of cheap affairs, back alleys, empty highways, "barf and blood"(107), however, may want to spend a night with Suburban Pornography.